Steve Heinecke with SOCK

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By Steve Heinecke

As a trainer, when it comes to preparing for the show ring, no detail should be overlooked. In the same sense, as a judge, when it comes to deciding a winner of a class, it is oftentimes the little details that make the biggest impact.

In the hunter and equitation rings, the flying lead change has a great impact on the riding score. Yet achieving a flying change of lead, and doing it correctly, can be two different things.

First and foremost, we must understand and analyze how a horse completes a flying lead change. A flying lead change occurs when a horse swaps from one lead to the other without breaking from the canter and, preferably, does not change in rhythm, but continues to follow the pace and path established by the rider.

When a horse changes its lead, it is slightly bending their head in the direction of the new lead, while keeping the outside shoulder on the same track and allowing the outside hip to come in.  Naturally a horse wants to follow his head, and by only using your inside rein, the horse may not be able to bring his haunch in and execute a clean lead change.

It is important to understand the biomechanics of the horse. The power comes from behind and the balance is through the neck. In a perfect world, the horse is supported by the inside leg to the outside rein. The rider needs to use the outside rein and leg, ride the line, softly change the bend to the inside and give, while continuing to support with the outside hand and leg aids.

If you are tracking left, your horse should be on the left leg and right rein, while still having a soft right leg. When crossing the diagonal, the rider changes rein, which means the rider will apply more right leg while capturing the horse in the left rein. At the same time, the rider is supporting with the left leg and softly shaping with the inside rein, the right rein, which indicates a lead change.

The position of the rider also contributes a great deal to achieving clean lead changes. The rider’s position has to allow the horse to be in front of the rider’s leg. If the rider is leaning too far back or is behind the horse’s movement, it could cause the horse to invert its back, making it more difficult for the horse to change fluidly. In regards to the rider’s rein aids, some horses prefer a softer hand and lighter seat, while other horses require a more supportive hand and connection between leg and hand while changing the lead.

A poor change can occur when a horse and rider are able to accomplish the change but do so with a dramatic change in rhythm and/or position of the rider. If the horse does not change its hind end at the same time as their new inside front leg, the result is a late change. When the change happens fluidly without any disturbance in pace, position or path, the judges will reward.

At a higher level of riding, a smooth change is expected. However, at the pre-green, baby green, short stirrup or long stirrup levels, as long as the lead is clean and the pace is not too dramatic, it should not influence their score in the show ring.

Exercises to Improve the Flying Change

While learning to master clean flying lead changes is important, it is not a good idea to over practice them. This can teach a horse to anticipate and to become anxious and quick. If my horse has a good change, I rarely school them.

Patience and consistency are key to teaching and improving your horse’s flying changes. It comes down to riding your line, not cutting your corner, using the outside rein and inside leg and using the outside leg at the time of asking for the change.

One exercise I recommend to improve your lead changes is placing cavalettis or poles on the diagonal three quarters of the way down your line. It is a great tool to help the horse understand what the rider is asking for, while also elevating the horse’s balance to make it easier to swap leads.

Canter across the diagonal and as you change direction over the pole, ask for the flying change. Most horses will change their leads during this exercise, and once they are confident with the aids, you can incorporate it into a course.

Sometimes with younger horses or horses that have been ridden by a green rider, using the cavaletti can help relax the horse and keep them from rushing through the lead change. If the horse gets too nervous when working on lead changes, focusing on simple lead changes as well as counter-canter exercises can also help.

Although flying lead changes can be easily achieved by most, it is important we understand the logistics behind how they occur and how we, as riders, can set the horse up properly to improve the quality of the lead change. Working to perfect these little details in your riding will add up and are sure to reflect positively on the judges at your next show.

To learn more about Sock Inc. and Steve Heinecke, visit and like Sock Inc. on Facebook at

About Sock Inc.:

Sock Inc. is a hunter, jumper and equitation training operation located directly outside Charlotte, North Carolina, catering to riders of all levels. Owned by world-class professional hunter rider, trainer and judge, Steve Heinecke, Sock Inc. is known for producing top quality horses and riders while enforcing a high standard of professionalism and understanding of proper horsemanship in all its students so as to continue to better the sport for future generations to come.



By Steve Heinecke
SOCK, Inc. Based at Robindale Farm in Waxhaw, NC

As a USEF “R” judge, travelling across the country, I am often asked questions about my judging perspective and technique in the hunter and equitation rings. I have also teamed up with Robindale Farm in Waxhaw, North Carolina, to host a clinic on Dec. 18 to teach about a few ways to improve a rider’s score and understand where the score comes.

First thing to understand is that, although the score is important, the order is more important. An 80 in one class may be a third, and in another class be seventh.

I begin judging as soon as the rider enters the ring or as soon as I look up from scoring the previous rider. The overall first impression of the horse and rider is very important in the judging process and the overall picture presented should be pleasing and positive. Once I have an overall feel of the horse and rider, I determine a baseline score then backtrack through each jump. If they are having difficulties, such as adding strides, chipping fences or missing lead changes, then I begin taking notes and edit the score accordingly.

In the hunter divisions, we are judging the horse and not so much the rider, though the whole picture is crucial to achieving a high score. I like to see a quality jumper with a smooth gait, good expression and landing on the correct lead. Consistency is key. I do not want to see eight different styles of jumping or eight different rhythms.

My judging technique comes more from a rider’s perspective than from a trainer’s perspective. From my experience as a professional, I can relate to what a rider is experiencing on course. I do not want to see a horse buck, but I’d rather him be a little fresh, pull on the reins or even shake his head and he jump great, as long as he’s not out of control. However, that is not an opinion that all judges have.

When judges submit their scores for each round we often collaborate and discuss the round to come up with a score that we both agree on. For the derbies, horse shows often place the judging panels in two separate locations around the arena to provide different perspectives. This may result in a 10-point difference because judges will see jumps at varying angles, which will then be added together to determine the final score.

As a judge, there are three key techniques I often use to determine the winners in a class: consistency, collaboration and comparison. How I judge one rider is how I must judge everyone in a class in order to be as fair and accurate in my scoring as possible. I also discuss with other judges on my panel and hear their thoughts on a rider as well as compare them to previous riders in the class to determine the average score for that rider. In the grand scheme of things, the best way to achieve a high score in the hunter or equitation ring is to strive for correct pace, path and position. This is my mantra and what I always tell my students over and over again. Following the three P’s (pace, path, position) and understanding those judging techniques will ultimately leave a lasting impression on a judge, which is the fundamental goal when entering any show ring.

I hope this helps riders learn how to achieve higher scores and have a better understanding about the scores they are receiving. You can read more about this subject in my column, “Keeping Score with Steve Heinecke,” on and please join us for the “Improve Your Score with USEF “R” Judge Steve Heinecke” clinic on Dec. 18 at Robindale Farm to hear more on this topic!